"Left 4 Dead," Valve's Doug Lombardi modestly tells us, "will redefine cooperative games the way Counter Strike redefined competitive multiplayer." He isn't lying. Without hype or hyperbole, Valve's four player first-person shooter is the first of a new era - a co-op game above all else, to the exclusion of a true solo campaign; a co-op game which unapologetically forces strangers to cooperate or die; and a co-op game different every time you play.
"About ten years ago we were living in a world of Deathmatch-only games," says Lombardi. "Counter Strike brought team play to the forefront. Right now, cooperative games are out there, but they're sort of one-shot deals where you play the game once and you start to memorise it.
"We're trying to get over that stagnant second-time experience. Each time you play the game it's different - you enter a room one time and it could be filled with zombies; you enter another time and it could be completely empty."
DEAD MEN RUNNING
The forest campaign begins at a campsite deep in the woods, takes a circuitous path through the trees, across a rickety rope bridge and towards an industrial complex. On each attempt we faced opposition from different sides and in different forms; sometimes attacked on the bridge, other times allowed free passage; sometimes besieged in a small portacabin, other times fighting outside against the horde. There are no spawn points for the game's zombies; instead, an 'AI Director' picks the right enemies based specifically on how you play, scheduling breaks between periods of extreme action.
"I don't know too many people who play a lot of campaign games for months, but people have been playing Counter Strike for years," says Lombardi. "'Co-op' is an out of date phrase. Multiplayer gaming has evolved to the point that it's easy to find your friends and really easy to find a good server, which in the old days just wasn't true. What we're trying to do is evolve game design to feed on that."
Lombardi makes it clear: Left 4 Dead is a cooperative game in a way we've never seen before. Bots can take the place of your three team mates but that's not really the point; it's about surviving with other people; about working together; about finding a weapon stockpile and sharing them amongst the group because that's the only way you'll manage to survive.
Halfway through the forest we stumble upon a small shack; the lights are on but nobody's home. As the first of the survivors enters she's spotted by snarling, raging, zombies - the infected. Even in their most basic form they move like lightning, climbing, leaping anything in their path and rushing at speed towards their target - the rest of us in the open ground between certain death and the cabin's sanctuary.
We break into a speedy back-pedal, unloading shotguns and machine guns into the crowd, with every psychotic infected human killed, another taking its place. Some among them lunge towards a straggler landing on the tattooed biker and leaving him defenceless; a shotgun blast from a friend clears the threat but the zombies are upon us, and while Zoey fires from the locked cabin's window the rest of the survivors are torn to pieces out in the open.
It's a lesson learned - not when and how to fight against the zombies, but that moving alone gets you and your friends killed. Stragglers die fast, wannabe hero leaders fearlessly charging into the breach die even quicker. Valve will make you cooperate with total strangers, even if it ends up killing you.